Taking ideas seriously

In preparation for delivering the 2021 John Urry lecture at Lancaster University on Thursday, I’ve been re-reading the book that introduced me to his work, Economies of Signs and Space, co-authored with Scott Lash. It was published in 1994, but being an economist, and therefore more ignorant of the other social sciences than I ought to be, I had only just found it when I wrote my 1997 The Weightless World. The commonalities in our ideas were striking – more so to me now than I recall them being 25 years ago, although I cite the book.

These included the intuition about the increasing salience of time and space – both books have a ‘cities’ chapter – fragmenting production systems, the importance of the cultural industries, the deficit of institutions lagging behind economic and cultural change. But above all the increasing share of value assigned to the intangible or weightless. They write: “What is increasingly produced are not material objects but signs,” and note the “increasing component of sign-value or image embedded in material objects.”

The lecture this week will pick up on these insights – I think I and they were pretty prescient – to talk about what it means to have an economy of ideas, but will also talk about the need to re-focus on the material foundation of this economy: giant warehouses and energy-guzzling AIs. Oh, and human brains.



Do cities have a future?

For obvious reasons there is a lot of debate about the future of cities, after 18 months when many of us have been stuck at home, and much speculation about whether there will ever be a return to commuting into dense city centres for work. The answer given in Survival of the City by Ed Glaeser and David Cutler is yes – probably. The basic reason is the role face-to-face interactions play in creating economic value, all the more so as increasing automation changes the kinds of jobs left to humans. Creativity, care, tacit knowledge – all require personal interaction. These long months on Zoom have depleted past stocks of social and organisational capital.

The ‘probably’ part, though, is that how successful cities will be depends on some key issues. Foremost among them is managing infectious disease. The book starts with epidemics in history and documents the ways cities have battled their effects, such as clean water and adequate sewage, not to mention the broader provision of good public health systems. For example, drug epidemics and pollution are usually urban blights. However, other aspects of city management are important too. The book singles out crime prevention, adequate supply of housing, and education provision too, for example (not least because the average level of education in a city is a strong predictor of life expectancy for its low income inhabitants even though they are generally not the most highly educated).

In a nutshell, the authors write: “A central theme of this book is that the vulnerability of large, dense, interconnected cities requires an effective, pro-active public sector.” Indeed. And the book ends with a series of recommendations: a “NATO for health”, effective across borders in a way WHO is not; better public health provision; education services that improve opportunities for those who are currently losing out in city life; and (this is a very US-focused book) criminal justice system reform.

I enjoyed reading it, not least because it speaks to my own instincts or prejudice about the role of cities. Lots of great detail too. Who knew the US health system might have been reformed in the 1960s if the then chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Wilbur Mills, had not been caugh drunk driving with an Argentinian stripper called Fanne Foxe at 2am, and tried to escape the police by jumping into the river? Or that Bayer used to sell heroin as a safe alternative to opium. Or that ‘watered stock’ literally used to be cattle given a lot of water to drink so that they appeared to be fatter?

I’m talking to the authors on 20th October as part of Bristol’s Festival of the Future City – bound to be an interesting discussion.



Economic booms in space, not time

All economic growth has occured through urbanisation, but modern industrial capitalism dramatically so. Robert Hall once drew a parallel between economic booms in time (business cycles) and space (cities). This is a preamble to saying I’ve always enjoyed books about cities, or perhaps it’s an excuse for my interest. Recently I polished off The Ghosts of Berlin by Brian Ladd, a sort of history through architecture and urban form. This week it was Why Cities Look the Way They Do by Richard Williams. It argues that cities are the result of the interaction of many different processes occuring through time, and the chapters each explore some of these – culture, war, sex – and also money, work and power. In other words, there’s nothing intentional about how cities look, for all the efforts of the planners. Different cities are used as examples; the book’s focus is mainly big global cities but others such as Liverpool and Portland and San Paolo feature too.

I particularly liked the money chapter’s observations on real estate. It points out that some iconic supposedly residential towers such as 432 Park Avenue in New York are only half occupied and that this is intended. For they are not homes but investment assets, whose owners don’t care if they’re never occupied. Money buys space, and the emptiness is a store of value in the context of economic agglomeration. Of course there’s a poignant contrast with a city like Detroit, which is emptying, but whose spaces mark depreciation, not appreciation, of the asset. The chapter about the culture industry and its self-contradictions is nicely spiky, as is the one about the hipsterisation of industrial buildings in the modern world of work. As someone who grew up in an old-fashioned industrial place, I’m happy with the hipsterisation process; Manchester now is a better urban environment for its humans now than it was in the early 80s even though it’s lost the gritty culture/music scene of that era. But I can understand the regrets for lost authenticity.

Why Cities… has loads of pictures, too. The author is an art historian, so reading it prompts one to look. Very enjoyable.

Why Cities Look the Way They Do




Urbanites, farmers and barbarians

One of my all-time favourite books is James Scott’s (1998) Seeing Like A State, because of its sheer capacity to be thought provoking. So I eagerly ordered his new book, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. It is equally well written and enjoyable, ranges across disciplinary boundaries in a most refreshing way, and again compels you to stop and think. But … it just isn’t as persuasive in its big picture perspective on society.

Against the Grain sets up a received wisdom, more or less Whig interpretation, version of early human history as a process of agrarian settlement, urbanisation and progress toward civilisation. There were setbacks and collapses of course, all kinds of bad stuff happened. Still, the contrast between a marginal life as a hunter gatherer and a more prosperous settled existence as a farmer, and the progression to bigger towns, cities and civilisations, has been the narrative.

Scott argues that this narrative is ‘in tatters’ and offers his alternative: that ecological pressures undermined the viability of the happy hunter gatherer life, forcing agrarian settlement in which people were worse off nutritionally. The adoption of crops (wheat & barley) which could be stored, and divided easily, made the settlements attractive booty. So the agriculturalists were not only less prosperous than when fishing or gathering, they also were more likely to become victims of raids by nearby mini-states for both food and prisoners – either to do hard work in mines or fields, or in the case of women to serve as breeding stock or work on textiles.

For sure the conventional account seems to have its anomalies, and it’s easy to accept there are all kinds of unexplained historical developments. But Scott’s alternative narrative has its holes too. For one, he doesn’t explain how the earliest smash-and-grab states came about – what made them become more than their neighbouring impoverished but passive communities.

He also brings to bear an antipathy to state power structures – the same emotion that makes Seeing Like A State, about 20th century state-created disasters, so compelling. Take this example:
“I am tempted to see the late Neolithic Revolution, for all its contribution to large scale societies, as something of a deskilling. Adam Smith’s iconic example of the productivity chains achievable through the division of labor was the pin factory, where each minute step of pin making was broken down into a task carried out by a different worker. Alexis de Tocqueville read The Wealth of Nations sympathetically but asked, ‘What can be expected of a man who has spent 20 years of his life putting heads on pins?’

“If this is too bleak a view of a breakthrough credited with making civilisation possible, let us at least say that it represented a contraction of our species’ attention to and practical knowledge of the natural world, a contraction of diet, a contraction of space, and perhaps a contraction as well in the breadth of ritual life.”

It might be personal taste that makes me shudder with horror at the romantic vision of barbarians roaming the steppes, in harmony with nature, with a rich shamanistic appreciation of the world. But the vision also stumbles against – as far as I know from my amateur reading – good evidence that the slow progress of urbanisation in early history was accompanied by increases in longevity and health, and an economic surplus that enabled some (a slowly growing minority eventually trickling down to the majority) to acquire decorative clothing, jewellry and artefacts. There is also the constant steady flow over the centuries of people from countryside to cities, even though cities are evidently difficult and unhealthy places, even now. There is something very many people find compelling in urban variety and pockets of opportunity. Scott convinces me only this was not a linear Whig-like progression, at least in the ancient earliest eras of which he writes.

Still, this is a book well worth reading, gripping and full of interesting stuff. Not surprisingly, the sections on agriculture are great. “The key to the nexus between grains and states lies, I believe, in the fact that only the cereal grains can serve as a basis for taxation: visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable’.” No other crops have all these features, he argues. Wheat has a harvest while lentils can be picked at any time. Cassava is left in the ground until needed and can sit there for a couple of years. What is 10% of such a crop? I enjoyed also the section on writing – for accounts – as a key signifier of statehood.

As I finished reading Against the Grain, a couple of very interesting reviews were published. Here is Walter Scheidel in the Financial Times and Samuel Moyn in The Nation.



Cities are the future!

It’s been one of my obsessions for some years that the UK economy is damagingly, dangerously, London-centric. Well, the polity as well as the economy; I argue here in a new VoxEU e-book with my colleague Prof Rob Ford that the ‘anti-Brussels’ Brexit vote can be considered an anti-Whitehall and anti-Westminster vote. Anyway, for years I’ve been working with people in Greater Manchester to chip in my small contribution to the city devolution agenda. This has started to bear fruit in the city devolution agenda, given real momentum by George Osborne in his time as Chancellor, and continuing with the forthcoming election of a Greater Manchester mayor.

One of the people at the heart of Manchester’s long campaign for the devolution of economic power, and political accountability, is Mike Emmerich. Now running his own company (Metrodynamics), Mike spent 20 years in public service, latterly in Manchester, where he played a pivotal role in bringing about the devolution revolution. He has written a terrific book about this important moment in the life of the country’s cities – and the nation: Britain’s Cities, Britain’s Future. The book is the latest in my ‘Perspectives‘ series, so clearly I loved it enough to publish it, with my partners at LPP. Setting that aside, though, the next few years are going to be a challenging time for the UK as the government sets about getting the worst possible Brexit deal (or so it often seems).

Even without this impending upheaval – the UK’s economic record has been pretty dismal, our level of productivity stubbornly much, much lower than in the other big OECD economies, the regional disparities among the widest in Europe and a substantial ‘left behind’ population in terms of both income and geography. Whatever we’ve been doing in terms of economic policy hasn’t been a terrific success. Mike’s book makes a persuasive case for taking advantage of recent signs of urban renewal in the big cities outside London and ensuring that the momentum continues. He blogged about it here if you want a foretaste of the book.51cT3hSZocL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_